How to Win an Argument Every Time, Why You Should Not, & What it Means for Education

Amid my ongoing research on the use of visuals and infographics to communicate knowledge online, I came across a new infographic called “How to Win an Argument Every Time.” I first saw the infographic on Pinterest, but I eventually tracked it down as part of a larger article on the subject. Yet, in this digital age, bits of our writing and messages, especially when they are in visual form, frequently get pulled out of context, shared, remixed, and re-interpreted. Consider the implications. I’d like to use this article as a platform to write about how to win an argument every time, why you should not, and (as people come to expect on this blog) what it means for education.

Not in the original article, but in another article that reused the infograhic (it is licensed creative commons), the author sets the context as the workplace when there is often a battle for ideas, and how it is important to be able to make your case. Yet, even in the first few paragraphs, the author shares an incredibly important and wise clarification.

Even if you are the boss, there are times when everyone will benefit from you backing down and accepting when you’re wrong. But when you’re right, you need to make sure your point of view is heard.

Within the infographic, it is all about the steps to building rapport and persuasion, advice that is supported in many studies: ask them to share their thought and listen, make eye contact, restate what you hear to show that you are listening and clarify your understanding, subtly mirror body language, build common ground by relating. Then it goes on to share the best strategies for sharing a convincing argument, again drawing from strategies often referenced in the research on persuasion and negotiation tactics.

It is a fine infographic. It draws from some good sources, cites those sources, chunks the content in a few logical categories, uses visuals judiciously and effectively, and even does it under a creative commons license. What is not to like about that? In fact, I do like and appreciate the visual.

Nonetheless, coming across this infographic on Pinterest, separated from its original context, created a good opportunity for me to consider an aspect of life and learning in a digital and connected age, one that finds its way into our schools and classrooms. As such, I offer three considerations:

De-contextualized Debates and Amplifying Tribalistic Tendencies

First, it is wise for us to recognize this dynamic of communication in the digital age. Too often, I see intense debates and disagreements both online and in learning organizations that can be traced back to de-contextualized messages. Consider this social media example.

  1. Someone Tweets a message within a given context.
  2. Others read it without awareness of that context.
  3. As such it is misinterpreted.
  4. False accusations and assumptions ensue.
  5. The message gets shared and further torn from its original context.
  6. Any search for the facts, the truth, or deep understanding is sacrificed at the altar of tribalist tendencies.
  7. The conversation turns into a series of partisan or tribalist bumper sticker statements to deepen personal convictions and do little or nothing to surface truth or valuable insight.

The alternative is for each of us, as we encounter these discourses at various phases of their lifespan, choose to seek understanding and context. That is part of being truly literate in a digital age, and it is not a skill that we master and then tuck away for occasional use. It is something that we must persistently pursue with each new discourse and interaction. It is an important digital habitus.

The Infographic Principles Have Even More Noble Uses

Many of the “strategies” or tactics” in the infographic are quite valuable in communication, but they are not just tools for winning an argument. They are also tools for seeking genuine understanding, building positive relationships, and seeking both wisdom and truth. It is fine to talk about how to win an argument. Rhetoric has been a valued part of education for a very long time, and it plays an important role in life and society. Yet, there is what I like to call wild rhetoric and domesticated rhetoric. Wild rhetoric is drunk with self-interest and wild passions more than anything else. My apologies for mixing metaphors, but domesticated rhetoric is sober, tame, and taught to serve a greater and more noble purpose.

The Most Important Goal is Not Winning the Argument

Third, and this relates to the content of the infographic, it is not good to win arguments every time. As much as I value the article and the infographic, and as much as I took a little time to track down the context for the infographic, the title focuses our attention on trying to win the argument every time. I disagree, and not just in situations where we recognize that we are wrong. Sometimes we are completely convinced that we are right, but we are not. To win would take us and others further away from the objective truth or the wisest course of action. I contend that the pursuit of such an approach, while we will never do it fully or perfectly, is an important part of civil discourse, the cultivation of wisdom, much needed leadership, and actual progress. If truth matters and we value wisdom in the modern world, then skill in rhetoric must always be paired with humility and a love for that which is wise, true, beautiful, and good.

Implications for Education

Regardless of what is happening in social media and larger discourses in society, schools have an important role to play. In my book, What Really Matters: 10 Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, the final item in the list of ten, and the last chapter in the book is entitled, “Truth, Beauty and Goodness.” That is because I continue to argue that, regardless of the method, model, or context in education; these three remain solid transcendentals upon which to build our curricula and learning communities. Learning organizations are places where we can celebrate, nurture, explore, and grow in our understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness. In doing so, we move beyond self-interest, while paradoxically discovering greater meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world.

Schools are places where we can, do, and should argue; even intensely. Yet, our goal is not to win as much as it is to learn, to understand, to grow, and to discover that which transcends the argument itself. In a time when some want to reduce the role of schools to job preparation using reductionist measures of success, and driving people in that direction by creating a culture of compliance, we can point to something bigger, better, more worthy of our time, money, and effort. Yes, we will prepare people for work, but even then, it must be work that grows out of truth, beauty, and goodness. It must be work shaped by wisdom and skill. For that, we must be about more than winning arguments.

Do you disagree or see fault in my thinking? I would love to hear from you. After all, even this article is not simply about making a case or winning an argument. It is just as much about seeking understanding.

Ban Devices from the Class or Help Learners Develop Self-Regulation?

In this recent Washington Post article, the journalist tells the story of Clay Shirky’s decision to ban devices from his NYU class. Shirky explains that he previously left the choice up to students. He considered it a challenge to be more interesting than the devices, and thought it appropriate to leave the responsibility of managing the devices to the students. The following quote introduces part of his reason for the change.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

The article continues by pointing to research about the negative effects of multi-tasking and Shirky’s conclusion that there was more at play than a simple student choice. Instead, he argued that the presence of the devices forced students to struggle between paying attention in class and an “involuntary and emotional reaction.” He goes on to explain that he sees “teaching as a shared struggle…working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.” 

Reading the article, there is plenty with which I can wholeheartedly agree. The growing research about multi-tasking, for example, is increasingly convincing. Multi-tasking has many downsides, including decreasing attention and focus, something that could certainly decrease learning as students grapple with new and complex ideas. More broadly, I welcome the wonderfully critical and reflective thinking about the nature and impact of technology in our lives. This is an important part of learning to thrive and survive in an increasingly technological age. Without taking time to consider the affordances and limitations, we easily succumb to mindless acceptance.

Yet, these very areas of agreement also lead me to think about alternatives to Shirky’s decision. If he held to an educational philosophy like educational essentialism, I would get it. He is the parent/teacher and his students/children need him to set most of the rules in lieu of their underdeveloped frontal lobes. Daddy knows best. Yet, in the article, Shirky points out that he does not hold to such a parent/child philosophy, but instead sees teaching as more of a shared experience, a “shared struggle”, an adventure (at least in part) in co-learning. Given such a philosophy, I wonder about alternative solutions. Consider the following five alternatives:

1. Provide students with access to some of the readings that led to his discovery/epiphany. Set aside some time in class for a robust discussion and exploration of the topic together. It may be that he did this, but it went beyond the scope of the article.

2. Set up a media journal assignment for students, where they logged their use of the devices during class. This would invite students to become more conscious about how the technology is impacting their experience in the class, also potentially leading to self-discoveries and robust c0-learning. It would also provide opportunity to compare different methods and strategies employed by students to leverage the devices in helpful ways.

3. Establish tech-less days and other days that are open. Or, based upon the planned activities for a given class, have students collectively vote on the “class rules”, learning to think through the issues together and make informed decisions.

4. Turn this into a class experiment with four groups. Group 1 uses devices when and however they want. Group 2 uses devices, but specifically focused upon learning strategies and supporting apps (note-taking, etc.). Group 3 uses devices, but they are charged to focus upon identifying strategies that best help them learn and focus, sharing their finding with others in the group (similar to group 2 but less prescribed). Group 4 refrains from any use of the devices in class. See if you can’t discover some patterns. Use the different group experiments to help students think through the issues more fully, and to discover the impact of different practices upon their learning.

5. Have students individually or collectively find existing research about the impact of devices in the classroom, using it to make informed decisions about their own usage.

Each of these five seem to align with Shirky’s stated philosophy of a teaching and learning as a “shared struggle” , and they do so by not banning the use of devices, but inviting students into the exploration and decision-making process. After all, these students will not have a parent to set these rules throughout their lives. Why not use this as a chance to help them learn to self-regulate? I understand that one argument against these might be that such exercises will detract from the main content and purpose of the class, but I contend that it can be done without having any effect on the overall student learning. In fact, by adding these elements of thinking about thinking and learning about learning, he is likely helping them think even more deeply about the course content.

Shirky is a brilliant thinker about new media. I value and learned a great deal from two of his books (Cognitive Surplus, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations). In fact, it would seem to me that his work around collaboration in the digital age might provide alternate insights into how to address the identified problem of attention-distracting practices in the classroom, insights like one or more of the ideas listed above. However, I do not write this as a criticism of the decision in his class. I don’t have all the facts nor do I fully understand the context in which he made this decision. Nonetheless, the article provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the broader conversation about the role of devices in the classroom, considering some of the options available to educators. In doing so, I am compelled to frame the discussion around a question that is larger than how to get students more fully attentive in a single class. Instead, I am asking, “How can we best help prepare young people to thrive as discerning consumers of devices in a digital age?”

Wonderful Things People Are Doing & Media Attention

I just finished a quick, enjoyable read; Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers: Things to Remember Along the Way by Fred Rogers. It is a short, simple collection of insights and proverbs from the host and creator of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As I review and reflect upon different ideas in the book over the upcoming weeks, I plan to share some of my favorites.  This my first one.

Fred noted, “The media shows the tiniest percentages of what people do. There are millions and millions of people doing wonderful things all over the world, and they’re generally not the ones being touted in the news” (p. 127). While he wrote this before the democratizing impact of the Internet, it still resonates. We certainly get to learn about more people’s stories now that anyone with an Internet connection can share a story, picture, video, or image. Yet, there are so many more stories that are unknown, wonderful things that people are doing in their lives, relationships, families and communities.  There are pieces of art that people create and never share. There are kind words and gestures that go unnoticed by many in the world.

This is not some Pollyanna view of the world. Fred Rogers recognized that there was plenty of pain and suffering, that there are bad things happening in the world as well. However, he suggested that the bad reaches the headlines and gets media attention more often than the good. His statement seems to represent a life philosophy tied to the idea that it is wise to also think about the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Phil 4:8). We can learn good and important lessons from non-examples in the world, examples of things and people that we do not want to emulate. We can also learn much from attending to the wonderful things that people are doing as they discover ways to live out their unique potential in the lives.

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What Does Your School Sell? Resisting Schools as Producers of Uninformed Consumers

What does your school sell?  Most schools  knowingly or unknowingly partner with companies to sell their products. Good or bad, this is a reality, but it offers educational leaders both challenges and opportunities. Look at ad-sponsored scoreboards in gymnasiums, contacts with vending machine companies that sell certain brands and not others, technology purchases and subscriptions that show loyalty to a particular brand. We have Apple schools, Google schools, and Microsoft schools. I’ve even seen lists of school supplies that require specific brands of crayons or makers. Students often have no choice in which product they use in school.

This situation extends to the curriculum. I meet teachers and administrators who represent loyalty to one publisher or content-provider over another. In some instances, these are on the grounds of the content quality (which is more understandable), but it is often because the publisher has special features, electronic resources, great packages and prices, or even because they just have great name-recognition. I see this with public schools, private schools, and sometimes even stronger in homeschools. I am not arguing against valuing one company or provider over another, but I am suggesting that all of this sells something to students.

In some cases, it is selling students to a company. We see this where a school gets a free or reduced rate product or service. In return, the company gets to promote products and services to the students. In essence, the school is selling advertising access to group of students. One of the more memorable examples of this was in my first teaching appointment, a school that contracted with Channel One News. This for-profit media company wired all the rooms, mounted televisions in each room, and provided a school-wide media distribution system.  The school then had a contract that required them to play Channel One News in the classrooms each day.  This gave the company daily access to all the students in the building, with the ability to promote certain products and/or ideas as they saw fit and beneficial. Something similar takes place when schools and teachers use advertisement-funded free technology resources and services. The students use the product or service for educational purposes. While they do so, the company gets to advertise products and services to the students. In fact, this happens each time we have students conduct a search on Google.

It is nearly impossible to create an advertisement and brand-free learning organization, and I am not sure that is desirable. There is something that schools should do about this, however. If schools do not do something about it, then they risk unknowingly producing uninformed consumers (by example or implicit teaching). I suspect that there are many responses, but here a some of the possibilities.

1) Talk About The Schools Sell Reality – Make this a conversation among administrators, teachers, students, parents, board members and other stakeholders. Make it public and transparent, including the benefits that schools get from certain partnerships, and the reasons for purchasing decisions and contracts. Making it transparent may cause some controversy, but it will also add an important level of accountability, and offer a good example for the students. After all, whether it is public or private, people are paying for schools, and there is an assumption that schools are not primarily places intended to sell students and families products and services from other companies. There is a difference between education and propaganda that transparency helps us respect.

2) Make It Part of the Curriculum – This is already part of the hidden curriculum, so why not be even more intentional about it? We could use school interactions and connections with companies as a chance to teach media literacy, marketing and brand-literacy (which I consider an increasingly important 21st century skill), the psychology of persuasion, consumer education, and other related topics.  These are important topics for young people, especially if we want them to be thoughtful, informed citizens and consumers. These could easily fit in language arts, social studies, even math and science curricula.

3) Involve Students in the Decisions – Building on the last one, why not engage students and groups of students in the research, negotiations, reviews and decisions about what products and services are used. This takes time and training, but it is the sort of decision that helps schools make that shift that I discuss often, cultivating a true culture of learning and student engagement. Level of student involvement may vary by circumstance, decision, and age of learners; but there is a valuable teaching and learning opportunity here.

4) Compare and Shop – Even when convinced that a given investment for a school is the right decision, shop around. Compare multiple products and services. Once the decision is made, revisit it on occasion. Again, consider involving students and other stakeholders, and be sure to keep the process as transparent as possible. Learning is not something we do to students. It is something that we foster in them. Shopping can model thoughtful decision-making.

5) Leave Room for Brand Competition – When reasonable, allow for multi-product presence in the school. This is one of many reasons that I support BYOD schools. It adds some technological challenges, but it also avoids the one-brand loyalty issues. However, when the different products are present, why not create some learning activities out of reviewing and comparing them. By they the way, this multi-product environment aligns with what many experience in the workplace and other contexts outside of school.

6) Establish Policies and/or Core Values About Partnerships – What are the guiding values in your school’s interactions with other companies? Think of issues related to privacy, transparency, even the values of the companies with which we do business. Doing or not doing business with companies can be a social statement. For example, maybe your school wants to model and promote sustainable living. Maybe this will impact the types of companies with which you will do repeat business.

7) Do A Brand and Advertising Audit of the School – This could be a school-wide effort, evaluating the products and services, documenting the reasons for the decisions, analyzing what sort of advertising is happening to people in the school. If nothing else, it helps with the first suggestion of making things transparent. You may be surprised to discover the hundreds of corporate products and services that combine to help schools function, and you are likely to find a few that require reconsideration or further investigation.

These may not be easy, because the reality is that many of us are not thoughtful and informed citizens and consumers. To take up these challenges will require many of us in education to revisit our own consumer habits. No worries. This provides a rich co-learning experience with the students.

By the way, you probably noticed that I have ads on my blog as well :-).